When word of the Boston Marathon bombing hit the news, it riveted me and a majority of Israelis to the TV and Internet. Beyond the fact that it was clearly an important story and one that needed to be understood, the fact it occurred in the United States, in a location that many Israelis have visited, made the concern more pronounced.
What made the first moments of the Boston bombing most dramatic for us is our empathy with the citizens of the country that Israel is closest to and the understanding that arises from our very extensive and tragic experience being victimized by this exact kind of savage and cowardly brutality. This was the first manifestation after the news broke – the connection and shared fate that Israelis feel with Americans.
Obviously we were anxious to know who the murderers were and their motivations, but in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the information most sought was the extent of the casualties and how the situation was being handled medically and psychologically. From our experience, these questions are the keys to gaining a semblance of control in an otherwise anarchic and horrific situation. Getting this early handle on the destruction allows the situation to quickly transition from one of carnage, to mourning while investigating and then to defiant rebuilding.
It was clear from the initial response in Boston that everyone involved knew what they were doing. A Jerusalem Post editorial two days after the attack stated: “Judging from afar here in Israel, the reaction in the U.S. to the atrocious violence carried out this week during the Boston Marathon is exemplary. While vowing, as President Obama did, to ‘find out who did this’ and make sure they ‘feel the full weight of justice,’ Americans, as Israelis do in similar circumstances, seem determined not to give in to fear and despair as the perpetrators of this heinous crime would have them do.”
Not only did we feel a close psychological connection to this reaction, there was a very real practical connection between America and Israel that came to the fore. Though American preparedness for attacks is part of the legacy of Sept. 11, Israel has helped Americans respond to such violence. During the waves of attacks by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Fatah-affiliated al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades and other terrorist groups starting in the late 1990s, Israeli doctors gained unique experience dealing with the injuries caused by bombs packed with nails, ball bearings and scrap metal such as the ones that went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Israeli triage expertise, gained on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and elsewhere during the second intifada, was shared with Massachusetts General Hospital, one of several medical centers that treated victims of the Boston bombings.
Israeli physicians also helped set up the hospital’s disaster team to better prepare it for responding to such attacks. Due to the deep feeling of sympathy and almost vicarious pain, many of us anxiously followed every move and report in the hope that this was an isolated incident and to see if the immediate American response would be similar to ours. Because compared to Israel, the United States still has relatively little experience in dealing with terror. Even though we haven’t found all the answers, we’ve developed successful security strategies, some of which are considered controversial, but lives are saved and democratic checks and balances oversee all of this.
On a psychological level, after suffering so much terror, we have figured out how to live with this contradiction: Something terrible could happen at any moment, and there’s no reason to let fear dictate how you live. This response is perhaps best described in the book Burning Land by senior NPR reporter, Greg Myre, and his wife, Jennifer Griffin, when they write: “We were consistently amazed at how quickly Israelis returned to places that had been bombed. The police, the rescue teams and the cleanup crews restored a bomb site to an outward semblance of normality within hours of an attack. Debris was swept out. Hoses washed away blood from the sidewalk. Shattered windows were replaced. The yellow police tape came down.
The next day, Israelis placed flowers and candles at the scene. By the time those flowers wilted, the street tended to be as busy as ever.” For Israelis, combating terror is not just a security question. It’s a social, cultural and psychological issue, and the whole country is required to play its role. It’s often measured in symbolic acts, like going back to the cafe or restaurant that was attacked. In 2002 alone, more than 50 suicide bombings were perpetrated against Israel, and population-wise, Israel is not much larger than Massachusetts. In a sense, Israel endured the equivalent of a Boston Marathon bombing every week for a year. After almost every blast, cell phone frequencies are taxed to the limit as everyone calls family, relatives and friends to make sure they are all right. In a country where it sometimes seems that everyone knows everyone, Israelis know they might be connected in some way to the victims. But this also helps us cope with this tragic and bizarre reality.
In McGill University Professor Gil Troy’s blog entitled “America and Israel: Targeted by Totalitarian Terrorists, United in Love of Life,” the strong American-Israeli connection becomes even closer at the time of a disaster to which Israelis can relate so personally. He writes: “But as we in Israel knew long before the trail reached to Chechnya and Dagestan, this kind of terrorist crime is an intensely international event – and involves us directly. We are proud – and should be – that the Israeli fingerprints on this event were all positive … And we are appalled – and should be – that in Gaza, members of Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad danced in the streets and distributed celebratory candies – as they also did on 9/11. It may not be politically correct to say it, but there is a moral difference between us and our enemies. I know of no Palestinians or anti- Zionists who denounced that despicable Gazan spectacle, when some of their bloodthirsty brothers delighted in the deaths of Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lu Lingzi.”
Besides the deep personal identification we felt with the victims of the Boston bombing, the fate Israelis and Americans share as the victims of terror and de-legitimization became apparent with the supporters of terror drunk in the joy of striking at the heart of the free world. While the casualty count paled in comparison to America’s murder rate, or even to the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, the psychological effect of the bombing, and the ensuing and unfathomable lockdown of Boston, will be manipulated by terrorists as a victory.
As Chemi Shalev wrote in Ha’aretz, “This was terrorism’s great victory, its spectacular triumph, its abhorrently glorious day in the sun. Never, in the history of violence aimed at innocent civilians, have the lives of so many been disrupted so much by the relatively amateurish actions of so few.” As we know, these “victories” by terrorists, become pyrrhic victories in the end due to the resilience of people like Americans and Israelis who love life and fight for democracy.
While these are perceived as weaknesses that terrorists try to exploit, they are actually the reason we emerge stronger after every attack and that terror has achieved nothing. Finally, the American-Israeli connection is prominent in the sick justification used by today’s totalitarians, the Jihadists and the Islamic nations and regimes that back them, who lump both of our nations together as a two-headed ogre. These fringe ideologies of hatred have come in from the cold by astonishingly and successfully striking a nerve with many Western intellectual forces and co-opting the United Nations.
Troy continues in his blog, “Israel’s and the Jewish people’s involvement runs deeper. In explaining what prompted these two brothers to turn to terror, we see how anti-Americanism festers in the same totalitarian swamps that breed today’s anti- Semitism and anti-Zionism. Among radical Leftists as well as Islamists, prejudice against Israel and the U.S. seems to be the last legitimate bigotry, the only hatred acceptable to air in polite circles. Both anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism transcend anger at specific policies, which could dissipate. Instead, they express an enduring, irrational hatred, repudiating each country’s essence. “
The unshakable bond between America and Israel is felt by Israelis in times of calm and prosperity, and even more so in times when our common enemies strike at our freedom, openness, tolerance and acceptance. One can only hope that the necessary conclusions will be drawn from this tragedy as they have been drawn from so many tragedies in Israel so that future attacks can be avoided as much as possible. If these steps are taken, and in a country as vast with so many soft targets it is not easy, and if Americans have no illusions regarding what we are all up against and what must be done, then terror against America will be futile.
This column is dedicated to the memory of my late older brother, Marc Tanzer 1954-2013 ,ל”ז .